By Kate Kellogg
Nearly everything we use and depend upon—from toasters to computers to medications—was at some point just an inventor’s vision or researcher’s discovery. Although the leap from studio or lab to marketplace has shortened over the years, commercializing innovation still takes much work, some risk, and lots of help.
Office of Technology Transfer provides that help for U-M faculty who believe their inventions have potential to benefit the general public. Tech Transfer’s team of licensing specialists, legal advisors, patent experts, and business development specialists guide faculty through the whole process—from disclosure and patenting to forming license agreements, and, in some cases, launching startups.
In Fiscal Year 2005, the Tech Transfer Office reported 287 disclosures, 128 patent applications, 86 license/option agreements, seven startup companies, and $16.7 in total revenues (combined royalties and equity sales). The revenue that results from commercialization is generally split three ways: among the faculty member, their department or lab, and their school or college. The university retains ownership of the invention. No matter how fantastic the invention, successful commercialization is partly dependent on market forces, notes Mark Maynard, marketing manager for Tech Transfer. “There’s a lot of competition out there and the product needs to have long-term market potential,” he says. “If a person is on the startup route we can provide networking opportunities and steer them toward the right resources. But licensing is a different ballgame. To some extent, you have to go with what industry is looking for.”
The Tech Transfer office has four licensing specialists who work fulltime to help faculty place their inventions with existing companies. This year, roughly a third of the university inventors looking for license agreements found industry partners. “That’s not bad, considering that a lot of the technology we work with is early-stage,” says Maynard. Various stages of innovation were on display this October at the annual Celebrate Invention event held at the Michigan League on Central Campus. Sponsored by the Tech Transfer Office, the technologies showcased were disclosed, patented, or licensed in FY 2005. A few were already products of startup companies. While the two examples described below appear as different as night and day, both fulfill the university’s important “public benefit” requirement for commercialization. These products clearly offer potential benefits to the world beyond academia.
Mobile Hygiene Carts
Innovation is nothing new for Allen Samuels. He has been designing and developing new products for 40 years. A professor in the U-M School of Art & Design, his latest patented design could dramatically improve quality of life for aging and impaired people and their caregivers.
Samuels has designed two Mobile Hygiene Carts that are self-contained, portable bathroom environments. Each provides a toilet, sink, hamper and personal storage bin for aging individuals with physical and/or cognitive impairments who can not use standard bathrooms. The carts are appropriate for home, hospital, or hospice use. The light-weight, free-standing units (one vertical, one horizontal) can be rolled to any location, including a patient’s bedside.
Several events inspired Samuels’ invention. Natural disasters, such as last year’s Tsunami in Southeast Asia and Hurricane Katrina, left thousands without shelter or sanitary facilities. In response to media coverage of human suffering, he designed a portable emergency shelter that included a paperboard, disposable toilet device. The disposable toilet is one component of the hygiene carts. Another factor that motivated Samuels to design a user-friendly hygiene system was his own father’s experience. Samuel’s father, who has since past away, had Alzheimer’s disease.
Before moving his father to a long-term care facility, Samuels had helped his mother care for him at home. “We had to really struggle to get him into the bathroom,” says Samuels. Once in the institution, his father still had difficulty moving safely from bed to bathroom. It was larger than a home bathroom, but not configured much better for a disabled person. “It made me think there must be a better way to help people like my dad get to the bathroom and, once in the bathroom, remember why they’re there,” he says. “I thought, why not bring the bathroom to them?”
The standard bathroom can be a dangerous place for a disabled person and even poses hazards for the caregiver, he explains. Falls in the bathtub are a common cause of serious injuries among the elderly. Since toilets and tubs are usually set against the wall, the caregiver must lean forward to lift the patient. That posture can cause back strain and other injuries.
Since the Mobile Hygiene Carts are comprised of free-standing modules, the caregiver can assist the patient from any direction. Both the horizontal and vertical versions enable the user to deposit solid and liquid waste into the toilet unit and wash themselves in the attached sink while seated in place. Or the caregiver can administer a sponge bath on the spot. The paper and plastic toileting device consists of a plastic catch bag and cardboard and adhesive seal. It can be folded up like a disposable diaper and discarded.
The units are not equipped for plumbing; water must be transported to them from another source. An integral water storage container provides a reservoir of clean water to the sink bowl. The vertical version of the cart delivers fresh water to the sink by way of a push button. Water used for bathing drains into a reservoir for toilet water. The waste processing module can accommodate up to 25 flushes before this sealed unit is removed and emptied into a standard toilet.
The horizontal version of the cart includes a removable hamper for storing soiled clothing. In both types, air vents exchange fresh for soiled air via a filter system. Under-lighting makes the carts visible at night. Samuels hopes to find a chip company to provide technology for audible components that would prompt users through tasks. “These systems are designed to deal with every aspect and phase of disability and dementia,” he says. “While the modules will be made of fiberglass, they’ll appear porcelain white so as to be recognizable and soothing to someone with memory loss.” As the human life-span lengthens, he hopes such devices will enable more people to age with dignity and independence.
While he successfully designed concepts for clients over the years, Samuels has had difficulty finding a commercial partner for the hygiene carts. Thetford Corp. co-developed the prototype with him and built a model from his design. But, to date, he is still seeking a manufacturer for his product. He wonders if companies see his product as a “grim reminder” of the reality of aging—even though its purpose is to ease the difficulties of aging and disability.
Samuels credits the Tech Transfer Office for handling up-front costs and helping him obtain a preliminary patent. “It’s a real plus to have the university and all its resources and lawyers behind you,” he says, adding that Tech Transfer promoted the product as best they could. Some venture capitalists expressed interest in his concept but have not made any offers.
“The design part was easy for me,” he says. “Marketing is the hard part.” While a lucrative licensing agreement would be nice, Samuels is not out to make money. “What frustrates me is that there’s nothing better out there on the market,” he says. “You can spend up to $300 on what is basically a lawn chair with a potty seat in it. You see nurses walking around hospitals with open pans of waste. We should be able to do better than that for our elderly.”
It’s not that Samuels’ invention has gone unrecognized. It was selected from 638 entries from 24 countries to receive the prestigious Red Dot Award for a design concept. Conferred by the Design Zentrum Nordrhein Westfalen, one of Europe’s most highly reputed design institutions, the Red Dot symbol is an internationally recognized seal of quality for award-winning products. Design Zentrum representatives will be promoting the Mobile Hygiene Carts in Asia and Europe.
“I may find an Asian or European Company to manufacture and market my product,” says Samuels. “I’d rather sell it here, but you do what you have to do.”
“What is it?” was among the most frequently asked questions at Celebrate Invention 2005. The answer to that query isn’t always a simple one. Mayaterials Inc., for example, has developed a product that requires more than a phrase or two of explanation. Based on organic/inorganic hybrid nanoparticles made from rice hull ash, Mayaterials’ coating technologies have applications in a variety of industries. CEO Rick Laine is a U-M professor of materials science and engineering.
“We found this to be an interesting area for a variety of reasons one of which is simply that the molecules themselves are elegant structures,” says Laine, whose research specialty is the processing of nanoscale polymers. “They are 3-D cubes. By applying organic chemistry, you can make the corners sticky and assemble these cubes.” Each Cube is one nanometer in size, or one-billionth of a meter. The width of a human hair is about one-millionth of a meter.
These assemblages of nanoparticles turned out to be easy to make from a cheap and plentiful waste product—rice hull ash. When rice is processed, the hulls are removed and burned, sometimes for fuel value. The rice industry generates about three million tons of rice hull ash per year. Laine contacted Riceland, of Arkansas, and Agrilectric, a Louisiana-based company that burns rice hulls for electricity. The companies sent him hundreds of pounds of free rice hull ash to use in his research.
Since rice stores silica in the hull, when the hull is burned, the end product is about 90 percent amorphous silica and ten percent carbon. Laine and his research team used a simple process to extract the silica which forms nanocubes in the process and these cubes can be made with sticky corners thereafter. “Rice hull ash is so cheap it can be used as chicken litter,” says Laine. “It’s an inert substance that often gets dumped in landfills. So you could say we’re doing green chemistry.”
He knew he was on to something marketable. Using these silica-based nanocubes, the Laine research group developed tough and versatile coating materials with potential applications ranging from luminescent paints to termite-resistant wood. In 2003, he formed Mayaterials, named for his daughter, Maya.
Since he had founded another university spin-off company in 1996, (originally TAL-Materials and now Nanocerox) Laine knew where to go for startup funding. In collaboration with a professor at Eastern Michigan University, he wrote a proposal to the United States government for a Small Business Innovative Research grant. He received $100,000 in funding, which Mayaterials personnel used to develop his coating technologies. Laine continued to give presentations on his product and found individual investors who provided some additional business acumen. Contracts with Guardian Glass Company and a Phase I SBIR contract from the U.S. Department of Agriculture helped move the company forward.
Most recently, Mayaterials received a Phase II contract from the U.S. Air Force for the development of low-cost, high performance, corrosion resistant coatings for aircraft frames. That application evolved from extensive work done at U-M with a number of contributors. The UM group has developed epoxy resins with low expansion behavior in heat. The new Epoxy resin is an ideal material for fuselage coatings, since it can withstand high temperatures without flaking off.
“The goal of our company is to make value-added products that don’t require high-cost starting materials,” says Laine. Those products include drying agents made from inexpensive silica gels, high thermal stability paints, low-cost, high quality insulation, and a process for impregnating wood with silica. Laine characterizes the last as “nano-rock.” “It’s almost like an artificial means of petrifying wood,” he explains. “The wood becomes stronger and resistant to fire and termites.”
Mayaterials also is working on coatings comprised of robust, light-emitting polymers for use in luminescent displays. “Florescent lights will likely go away in the next ten to 20 years,” Laine says. “Making light out of polymers is the new hot area.” The company now has six employees and a new, 3,000-square-foot lab facility on Airport Road. Laine downplays his own position, noting that he has hired a competent core group to run the company. “I consult a few days a month,” he says, adding that he plans to eventually hire a permanent CEO. One of his senior scientists, Adrianna Gelover, received her doctorate degree in materials science in Japan although she is originally from Mexico. She will be making presentations to some Japanese companies, including Fuji Film and Toshiba. “Too often, interest in high-tech startups comes first from Japan and Korea,” he says. “Yet we’ve also had good success with Delphi and Guardian.”
For a startup with a product based on chicken litter, Mayaterials is doing pretty well by any company’s standards
Life Skills At
By Kate Kellogg
As crew chief of the University of Michigan’s 2005 solar car team, Peter Balogh had more responsibilities than most CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. He had overseen design of the car’s brake system and was now in charge of all engineering for the car,
as well as team operations and business. He stood up to the pressure. Last summer, he helped the team win the North American Solar Challenge and later place third in the World Solar Challenge in Australia.
The mechanical engineering major credits his alma mater, Washtenaw Technical Middle College, for teaching him to take charge in any situation. “At WTMC, I learned to step up to the plate and take responsibility for my own and others’ work,” he says. “Of all the things I learned there, that was the most important. The school trains you to be self-motivated.” Balogh had earned his General Studies degree from Washtenaw Community College by the time he had graduated from the middle college, a charter high school. His younger brother, Akos, had earned his associate degree in computer programming through the same program at age 18. Akos is now enrolled in U-M’s Ross School of Business.
Peter Balogh had completed his first year of high school in Midland, Michigan before his family moved to Ann Arbor. After visiting a public high school, the boys’ parents opted to send their sons to WTMC. “They felt it was better equipped and had more technical-related opportunities,” says Balogh. “We also thought the public school had way too many students per class. My parents doubted the teachers would even remember my name.”
At WTMC, the teachers not only remember all students’ names but mentor them and guide them through customized, goal-focused programs. The school enrolls about 120 students per year, with a total enrollment of about 300. With assistance from faculty, students design their own programs that lead them from high school to college level courses. In fact, completion of a WCC certificate or associate degree—for a total of 60 credits— in a technical field is a requirement for graduation. What’s more, those college courses are tuition-free.
The middle college was founded in 1997 as alternative to the current high school model that many educators believe does not adequately prepare students for the demands of college and work. It is a charter high school, chartered by and housed on the WCC campus. Neither an honors academy nor school for at-risk students, WTMC will enroll any student who has completed the equivalency of ninth grade. The school selects students each fall through a lottery system with first preference given to Washtenaw County residents. “Middle college” is an umbrella term used for schools associated with college transition, explains WTMC Dean Lee Schleicher. “Of the 115 in the country, none are quite the same as ours. No other middle college requires completion of degree or certification for graduation from high school. To my knowledge, ours also is the only middle college located on a college campus.”
About 69 percent of the diverse student body comes from public schools, 20 percent from home-schooling, and the remainder from private, charter, or parochial schools, Schleicher says. “We receive kids from many different programs and with many different levels of preparation. Bringing them up to speed can be a challenge, but our program is designed to do that well.”
Upon entering the school, students take transition classes in mathematics, English, science, and social studies. Unlike most public schools, they also must demonstrate proficiency in five life skills or “soft skills” including attendance, preparation, communication, follow-up, and responsibility. Only when those skills are mastered, can they move on to college courses. The program is flexible in that students move forward at their own speed. And no one gets by with a grade lower than a C.
“If it takes a student longer to demonstrate skills, that’s OK,” says Schleicher. “Our educational philosophy is that kids develop at different rates. Traditional public schools take a lock-step approach to education. Everyone is expected to read, write, and graduate at the same time. Students may pass a course with a D- and come out with no skills.” After completing WTMC’s entry-level courses, students select a technical field of study from over 40 offered by WCC. The staff looks at students’ skills and interests, then helps them chose among the huge range of offerings: residential construction technology, web technology, pharmacy technology, radiology, hospitality management, computer programming….just selecting a field may be one of the most difficult parts of the program. From this point on, students work toward a certificate or degree in their chosen program.
To help students and parents map out a realistic course of study, the college has created individualized Educational Development Plans. Each student is assigned to a BASE teacher, who serves as an educational anchor and mentor throughout the student’s career at WTMC. Naturally, this nontraditional structure requires some students to adopt new mentalities. Under the guidance of BASE teachers, most students adapt and go on to a true college experience. “They have to deal with prerequisites and the inconsistencies that inevitably come up,” says Schleicher. “They learn that labs require time outside of class and how to allocate their time.”
Once transitioned into college courses, students are not subject to bells, roll calls, or hall monitors. “They learn that in college, you live by the rules of each instructor,” says Dave Dugger, associate dean and principal. “At first they may welcome the lack of attendance procedures but quickly learn that can be a trap.”
The soft skills requirement is essential for the transition because it teaches students to monitor their own behavior and practice self-control, he adds. “Mastery of those skills eliminates most of the problems that cause half of all college students to drop out before graduating. Those skills are necessary for success both in college and the workplace.” Most WTMC students embrace the challenges of this academically rigorous yet flexible program. They are among the best performing students on the WCC campus, earning a C or better in courses 80 percent of the time.
Approximately 80 percent of each class graduates, a rate that places the school fourth out of ten districts in the county in high school completion. Still another 80 percent of WTMC graduates go on to four-year college programs, while others find careers in their fields of study. Four students have gone to Berkley, including one who took his engineering exams at age 16, according to Dugger. Two graduates who specialized in computer systems security assurance were head-hunted by a national security agency. Perhaps the most telling measure of a program’s success is the number of siblings enrolled. One-third of WTMC’s students are siblings of previously enrolled students. “That shows how parents regard our school,” says Dugger.
The students themselves generally rate their experience at WTMC more highly than do those in traditional public schools. In a county-wide assessment of high school student engagement, conducted by the Washtenaw Intermediate School District, middle college students reported better educational experiences than did those at all other public schools in the county. From 2002 to 2004, their level of satisfaction was higher in almost every measure, from challenging coursework to communication between teachers and families.
With its strong focus on education and skill acquisition, the school does not offer official sports programs or many extracurricular activities. The lack of an athletics program was not a problem for Balogh, who says he has been practicing martial arts outside of school since a young age. He says most students manage to form social ties even without sports and clubs. “I thought it was cool that you see many of the same people in your classes and wind up helping each other out. I’m still friends with a bunch of students from my program.” Many of the college-level programs offer opportunities for special projects that take students well beyond the classroom.
For example, several WTMC students enrolled in the Custom Cars and Concepts program were part of the crew that worked on camera for the Learning Channel’s Rides program. The middle college now has a robotics team, which participated in the Great Lakes Regional robotics competition at Eastern Michigan University. WTMC was the first school in the state to receive the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Practice. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education named WTMC among the top four schools in the nation in preparing students for the 21st Century.
“The middle college is charged with the task of preparing kids for the rigors of a campus degree program. That’s one of its greatest challenges and greatest strengths,” says William J. Davis, Jr., president of Arbor Springs Water Company. He is a founding board member and currently president of the WTMC Board of Directors. “The school provides a spectacular resource for the community and unique opportunity for students. And it has developed a good synergy with the community college. A lot of other places out there are trying to model elements of our program.”
WTMC administrators believe the emphasis on accumulating skills—rather than just counting credits—is what sets the school apart from others. By turning out academically prepared citizens with viable skills, the middle college also is helping the state and its employers, says Schleicher.
“The governor last year appointed the Cherry Commission on Higher Education and Economic Growth to prepare students for greater success in college and to double the number of college graduates in the state,” he says. “If only about 50 percent who start college graduate, then we’ve got to find a way to improve our high schools.”